A Most Intricate Review of Macgregor Card's Duties of an English Foreign Secretary

By Harriet Staff

Rain Taxi's online Winter 2011/2012 edition features a brand-new—and in-depth, what else can one hope for—review of Macgregor Card's Duties of an English Foreign Secretary (Fence 2009). Writer Alexander Dickow close-reads the plentiful allusions in Duties, starting with its title, which Card inherited from 19th-century Spasmodic poet Sydney Dobell. More on this:

Dobell represents a forgotten literary curiosity, mocked by his contemporaries, that the epigraph displays as a potential model. Card’s writing does not resemble Dobell’s, but explores excentric and excessive language, including repetition. As Card writes, “What is there to sing / but a round?”—a statement that suggests Card is not deriding Dobell’s whirling and cyclical iterations, but admires them. Choosing Dobell as a visible literary antecedent reflects Card’s audacious reinvention of the literary past: at the risk of losing his reader, his poems are sprinkled with curiosities like Dobell as well as a few well-known figures. This eclectic and erudite exploration of tradition forms a singularly odd personal library reminiscent of Apollinaire’s Alcools or Pound’s Cantos. For the reader willing to explore this library, Duties reveals a more frankly lyrical worldview than the book’s off-kilter absurdity and apparent fondness for triviality at first suggests.

Dickow smartly finds Gerard Manley Hopkins and Rene Char in Card's work, writing that "Char is known for his singularly humorless oracular obscurity," but that "Card playfully presents his hermetic epigraph in English translation, but leaves the title of Char’s poem, 'Effacement du peuplier,' in French. The title translates as “The poplar’s erasure” —another elegy." Dickow also discusses Card's relationships to France and French poets, both contemporary and not. He also looks at the Latin deployed in other poems:

“Ursus Memento Mori” plays with both the Latin ursus (bear) and the meanings of the word bear in English. At the end of the poem, Card offers a translation of a pair of latin verses:

Ad astra per aspera, ursi
non numero nisi serenas

To the stars, through hardship
I only mark the hours of the day. (p. 95)

In fact, this is a mistranslation disguising a series of puns. The phrase horas non numero nisi serenas is one of many mottoes written on sundials, but it is already a pun, translating the idiomatic “I count only the sunny hours”, but also the literal “I count only the hours of contentment” (serenas, serene). I have found it translated as “I count only the bright hours,” a fine way to import the ambiguity into English. But Card’s Latin verses replace horas with ursi, so that his lines, translated literally, mean To the stars, through hardship, I only mark the bears of the day. Earlier in the poem, Card attempts another deliberately mistranslated variation on his parodic ursi non numero nisi serenas: “The bear does not speak against the sun.”

These Bears of Time, of course, are not Carebears. This memento mori reminds us repeatedly that we are each one doomed to die: the word “bear” and its many variations disguise a singularly insistent meditation on mortality, wrapped in dense layers of multilingual puns, many of them variations on familiar proverbs in various languages. The hardships mentioned in the Latin are, of course, all of the things in life that are so hard to . . . bear, as the first line of the poem reminds us: “The bears are too much to suffer.” The visual presentation of the poem is odd; a number of words are littered to the left of certain lines [Ed. note: please see review, or book, for correct line breaks.]:

Come vary my iron plate
bear. Stand a little closer to me
bear. Now a little further
bear. [. . .]

As these positional adjustments suggest, one might say that these marginal jottings are bearing to the left. Or just a little more to the right. Move back. There, you’ve got it: don’t move: say cheese.

But what do bears have to do with time? The bare truth of the matter is that we are all going to croak, like frogs. The French word for bears, ours (pronounced “oorss”) derives directly from the Latin ursus. But the French have a great deal of difficulty with the aspirated h of the English language. Card’s bears might therefore be those of a Frenchman mispronouncing, à la française, the English word hours.

Some readers may find these puns difficult to, er, tolerate. Card himself notes that he can “hardly [barely?] suppress [his] gorge,” which might be a mistranslation of the French j’ai du mal à ne pas rendre gorge, i.e. it’s hard for me to keep from vomiting. Personally, I find these half-hidden word-games delightful.

We think Dickow might be every poet's dream reviewer. What precise attention. The richness of Card's work doesn't hurt:

I’ve hardly scratched the surface of Card’s collection of literary allusions. “Fear and Trembling and the Sickness Unto Death,” as the title indicates, fuses almost direct quotation of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling with a meditation on marriage and fidelity; “I am the Teacher of Athletes” is a quote from Whitman’s “Song of Myself”; “The Giant and the Hunchback” may refer to a scene in Rabelais’ Quart livre, or to a play by Alfred Jarry called Par la taille featuring a Giant and a Hunchback; “Yield to Total Elation” is the title of Achilles G. Rizzoli’s series of posthumously published drawings of an imaginary world exhibition; “Studies of Sensation and Event” is the title of an obscure volume by the poet Ebenezer Jones (1843). Many more allusions probably escape me.

Card evidently inherits no canon, but invents his own. One might compare this relationship to the literary past to the foreigner’s relationship to a language and culture “from the outside.” In France, scholars and writers often quote Proust’s remark that the great writer reinvents his own language and makes it into a foreign language, an affirmation popularized by Gilles Deleuze. Card’s handcrafted tradition, distorted proverbs and often cockeyed syntax suggest that he would take Proust’s affirmation quite literally: I’ve already observed how his language often resembles that of the ESL speaker (English as a second language), as though poetry according to Card bore a kinship to flawed translation, or more generally to a kind of perpetual process of happy or tragic misunderstandings. In “Hey Friend,” “A friend says to a corpse, ‘I can say anything to you, and you can understand,’” denouncing friendship as a kind of one-way communication. (As it turns out, “Hey Friend” concludes “I am about to show you that you can never have seen me, anywhere”: this friend is anonymous). . . .

Read the full review here. Also! We'd love to see Dickow tackle Karen Weiser's To Light Out (Ugly Duckling Presse 2010), the companion volume to Card's Duties of an English Foreign Secretary; or engage the two in conversation. For now, here's to thoughtful criticism.

Originally Published: March 26th, 2012